Special Topics in Language and Literature


American Environmental Poetry

Sharon Kunde

MW 1:45 - 3:00 PM

For centuries, poets have been writing about the environment: celebrating its beauty, learning from it, projecting ideas onto it, and finding meaning in it. But recently, humans’ relationship with the environment has undergone drastic changes. Where even a hundred and fifty years ago, it might have been easy to imagine nature as an inexhaustible resource that was too vast to be truly altered by human activity, we now know those beliefs to be false. By increasing the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, by altering the fundamental character of the ocean and the conditions of crop production, global heating is changing how humans live in and understand the environment. But how can poetry – mere writing – intervene in such a massive problem?

Starting with canonical nature writing by poets like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, and Audre Lorde, this class will explore the work of a diverse group of living American environmental poets, including Ada Limon, Francisco X. Alarcon, Joyelle McSweeney, Juliana Spahr, Natalie Diaz, Terrence Hayes, and others. These writers – sometimes called “ecopoets” – use their craft to reimagine humans’ relationship to their environment in ways that take into account the problems posed by climate change. For example, these poets try to move past a human-centered, or anthropocentric, perspective. They confront the social conditions that make the leisured enjoyment of nature possible and that differentially distribute environmental risk. In addition, they often embrace an activist agenda, aiming to unsettle, terrify, awaken, rile up, and inspire. In other words, they try to change the world.

The poems we will study in this class invite their readers to cultivate new relationships with the environment and to think historically about place and nature. To facilitate this kind of work, we will visit certain locations in our own environment, including the Duke farm and the Duke gardens. Further, one semester-long assignment will ask students to observe and write about their environmental experiences of Duke’s campus and Durham more broadly. We will also contribute to the tradition of American nature writing by trying our hand at writing, as we develop a class collection of Duke-based environmental poetry. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley famously called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In a time when actual governing bodies are struggling to grapple with global ecological crisis, perhaps through reading and writing, we can develop new and generative ways of engaging with each other and the natural world.


Topics vary each semester.
American Environmental Poetry Course flyer
Typically Offered